Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Populist Movement

One may wonder why anyone should care about the Populist movement in The Gilded Age. I would assert that we should all care about the Populist movement for the same reason that we should care about any transforming event in history; it tells us about ourselves as Americans and about our nation. It seems that whenever our nation is in economic turmoil, the Populists rise again. Whether you spell Populist or Populism with a big P or a little p, the general idea is the same; government should work for the masses, not for the fortunate few.

The Populist movement has always been about the working class, and the interests of the average American, not the interests of Wall Street and big business. I am not sure that Populism will ever die, although it has an ebb and flow. The ideals of the Populists still resonate with Americans today and we have the Populists to thank for the progressive tax on income and the eight-hour work day. It is undeniable that Populists have influenced the way our government works today.

Populist movements usually coincide with an economic bust. And when there is a boom, a bust is never far behind. The economic bust was the impetus that brought the Populists to power in the State of Kansas during the Gilded Age. “After the agricultural boom in Kansas collapsed between 1887 and 1890, the Jayhawk state had the largest number of acres mortgaged in the United States and one of the five highest public debts in the nation.” (Scott 453-467) This is similar to the housing boom that was going on all over the United States before our recent economic collapse.

There have been several economic busts since the Gilded Age, yet we have not learned from them. What can be taken away from our nation’s history if we cannot learn from our mistakes? I do not pretend to be any kind of economc expert, but if our country’s economy keeps booming and busting, it would seem to me that something is wrong, and something must be fixed. As George Bernard Shaw said “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”

As I mentioned above, the Populist movements of the past and today are about making the lives of average Americans better. It is about protesting the concentration of wealth in the hands of a lucky few. The Populist party of the Gilded Age was comprised mostly if not entirely of farmers, as I have mentioned in my previous blogs. The Populists of 2009 however, are small business owners, the working class, and farmers alike. Over one hundred years later, the Populists are still fighting for the masses.

It must be noted that although the Populist caucus in Congress today is a faction of the Democratic Party and not a third party as they were in the Gilded Age, the Democrats have adopted many of the ideas of the Gilded Age Populists. Too, the Democratic Party is considered the party for the average American. Although the Democratic Party today is one of the two dominant political parties in the United States, the Democrats deflected to the Populists in Gilded Age “from 1890 to 1892,” (Scott 453-467). This may be one reason why the principles of the two parties have some striking similarities.

There may not be a separate Populist Party any longer, but their ideas live on in the Democratic party. What seemed radical and crazy in the Gilded Age (i.e. progressive income tax) is now just the way things are. The Populists were ahead of their times in many ways, not just in their ideas, but also in the membership of their party. Black Americans and women could be found in the membership of the Populist Party.

According to Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Populism was "the first of the great American leftist movements."And although Populism was sweeping through many other states, Kansas set itself apart "by its enthsiasm". The enthusiam for Populism was probably similar to the excitement that swept across the nation about the candidacy of Barack Obama. In both instances, people had hope for a brighter future.

The title “What’s the Matter with Kansas?’ came from an essay by the famous Kansan, William Allen White. The essay was a classic “political clock-cleaning” as Frank puts it. White was anti-Populist in the Gilded Age, but he seemed to understand what they were after when the Progressive Era came around. He described the Populist movement as the attempt “to use government as an agency of human establish economic as well as politcal equality, to help the underdog,” and “to cut down some of the privileges that wealth carried by reason of its size and inherent power.” (internal quotations omitted, Clanton 559)

The farmers of the Gilded Age had hope that the Populist movement could improve their conditions and their lives. Just as Americans from all walks of life voted for Barack Obama because they wanted him to help lead the country back in a way that was properous for all Americans, not just the tycoons. The view to the future from the past can help us to see more clearly what we want for ourselves, and our nation. We must look to the future with hope, but never forget our past.

I am not arguing that we as Americans should dwell on our past, rather that we use it to our advantage. We have a rich history, with periods that fill us with pride and periods that fill us with shame. But, what all periods in American history have in common is the opportunities that they give us to learn from them. What we could learn from the Populist movement is that when the economy is booming, everything may be fine and dandy, but when it busts, people will see what had been wrong all along more clearly. The Populists were not looking for a handout; they wanted the fruits of their labor and they did not believe in unearned privilege.

Aldous Huxley captures the theme of this last entry perfectly, “The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different.”

Works Cited

Frank, Thomas. What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Macmillan, 2005.

Clanton, Gene. "Populism, Progressivism, and Equality: The Kansas Paradigm." Agricultural History 51 (1977): 559-581

Barton, Scott D. "Party Switching and Kansas Populism." Historian 52 (1990): 253-467

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